“Intent is not irrelevant”: New York Times spikes a Bret Stephens column critical of the paper, the New York Post publishes it

February 12, 2021 • 11:00 am

According to the New York Post (click on screenshot below), New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece criticizing his editors and many staffers for asserting that, in firing science reporter Donald McNeil for saying the n-word, the intent of his utterance did not matter.

That, of course, is absolutely ludicrous. In fact, I find it hard to believe that the paper, even mired in its wokeness, cannot make the distinction between the didactic use of the word, as McNeil apparently used it, and a word thrown in someone’s face as an nasty racial slur. The law, of course, recognizes such differences. If you run someone down with your car deliberately, it’s not the same crime as accidentally hitting someone in the street because you were distracted. There are many examples like this. We use notions of intent all the time in our daily lives, trying to decide whether someone did something nasty on purpose or out of sheer cluelessness. Forgiveness has everything to do with intent.

Here, let me list a few slurs used about Jews like myself: hebe, yid, sheenie, big-nose, hymie, Ikie, kike, moch, and Shylock. In fact, there’s a whole section of a Wikipedia article listing these words and their derivation, part of a longer article on “Religious slurs.”  Is publishing these words just as bad as hurling them at Jews? You’d have to be bonkers to think that. Likewise, my listing them as insulting synonyms—many of you may not know them—is not the same as using them to insult Jews.

But the New York Times apparently cannot make this obvious distinction. Columnist Bret Stephens called out his paper for its obtuseness in a column, and what did they do? They ditched the column! Why? Because it spoke truth to the spineless people in charge of the paper, who told the staff—who themselves maintained that their harassment training taught them that intent is irrelevant to shibboleths like the n-word—that they agreed: intent is irrelevant.

But he New York Post got hold of Stephens’ column and published it. How did they get it? They explain:

Last weekend, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece criticizing the rationale behind the forced ouster of Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., but it was never published. Stephens told colleagues the column was killed by publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Since then, the piece has circulated among Times staffers and others — and it was from one of them, not Stephens himself, that The Post obtained it. We publish his spiked column here in full.

Check the link above, which claims that although publisher A. G. Sulzberger was consulted about trashing the column, op-ed editor Kathleen Kingsbury said the ultimate decision to trash the piece was hers.  Here’s what she said:

“I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague and I didn’t feel that this piece rose to that level,” Kingsbury told the site. “Bret and I had a professional conversation to kill the column on Monday night and he expressed his disappointment and we moved on.”

Read Stephens’ trashed column for yourself; there’s nothing in it that would warrant its trashing, and almost nothing about Stephens’ colleagues, for it’s largely about the use of “intent” in journalism.  It was ditched because it implicitly criticized the editors and publishers for bad behavior:

A few excerpts:

Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.

It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.

A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference. Read accounts about life in repressive societies — I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — and what strikes you first is how deeply the regimes care about outward conformity, and how little for personal intention.

I’ve been thinking about these questions in an unexpected connection. . . .

Stephens then recounts l’affaire McNeil, and quotes editor Dean Baquet’s and managing editor Joe Kahn’s memo to the staff:

In an initial note to staff, editor-in-chief Dean Baquet noted that, after conducting an investigation, he was satisfied that McNeil had not used the slur maliciously and that it was not a firing offense. In response, more than 150 Times staffers signed a protest letter. A few days later, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn reached a different decision.

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” they wrote on Friday afternoon. They added to this unambiguous judgment that the paper would “work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”

Stephens emphasizes that his column is not about McNeil’s case in particular or whether the n-word is offensive and hurtful. As he says, “This is an argument about three words: ‘Regardless of intent’.” He then shows that the Times itself has used the n-word, in full, repeatedly, and explains why, especially in journalism, the question of intent is important:

Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.

That ought to go in journalism as much as, if not more than, in any other profession. What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions?

Journalism as a humanistic enterprise — as opposed to hack work or propaganda — does these things in order to teach both its practitioners and consumers to be thoughtful. There is an elementary difference between citing a word for the purpose of knowledge and understanding and using the same word for the purpose of insult and harm. Lose this distinction, and you also lose the ability to understand the things you are supposed to be educated to oppose.

You can read the rest for yourself; here’s Stephens’ ending:

We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.

Now can you tell me why this column was spiked except that it was clear, true, and a big spanking for the Times‘s editors? A discussion like this one is important—important for the paper and for journalism. Many op-eds that get published in the NYT are far less weighty. Yet they chose to throw it in the circular file. In general, the NYT does not like to report on itself: this affair has appeared mostly in the pages of The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, and even CNN Business.

And I wonder if Stephens, after his column was spiked and passed on by somebody to the NY Post, now has an uncertain future at the Times.

Stephens and McNeil (inset), from the NY Post


h/t: cesar

48 thoughts on ““Intent is not irrelevant”: New York Times spikes a Bret Stephens column critical of the paper, the New York Post publishes it

  1. The timing of the NYT’s reversal of opinion says, at least to me, that they really do understand that intent matters – and that the firing was simply kowtowing to the mob. It was done for venal reasons – i.e. to prevent loss of paid readership following some bad PR about what he did.

    I guess in some respect, then, intent doesn’t matter – to them. Notice to NYT reporters – if you threaten their bottom line, you’re gone, no matter what you did or why you did it or even if you’ve been falsly accused. Intent doesn’t matter to your bosses if you’ve become a liability.

    1. Most of the people who can afford to purchase a subscription to the Times can discern the difference between a slur directed at folks and an explanation of a word. The editors caved to a number of young employees who are exercising power by bullying other employees and people of perceived power outside the paper. There are half a dozen or more recent articles about the bullying, canceling and doxing behaviors of the paper’s young employees.

      1. I don’t necessarily disagree, however a bunch of young staff you see as valuable, threatening to walk if you keep McNeil on, also makes him a liability. Whether they should see those young staff as valuable is a different question, and you and I’d likely agree the answer is ‘no’.

        1. Point well taken. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful observation. I keep expecting adults to step up and help these bright young people learn how to behave with civility and tolerance. So far, the leaders in my part of the country have also declined to help these idealistic change agents learn how to live with folks who see the world differently than they do. Acting out in the name of social justice escalated and lasted all summer and fall as city leaders dithered and tried to turn off the riots by trying to defund the police as quickly as they could. Spoiler alert: didn’t work. Not when protesting and rioting were the only socially acceptable group activities tolerated under our covid restrictions. 2020 was quite a year.

  2. It‘s should be called the “use-mention-error”, a category error in the use-mention distinction. In one case, the speaker puts another person into a racist category (use) whereas in the other case is concerned with usages of a word (mention). The latter is more similar to ‘“love” is a four letter word’.

    We need this distinction, because we must have the ability to distinguish between ‘Jerry posted above the word “Shylock”’ and ‘Jerry posted above the S-word”. If I can never spell out what you have actually said, I cannot distinguish between these two cases. Suppose your list was “… kike, moch, and the S-word” and I quoted you the same, a reader would not be able to tell whether you wrote “S-word” or actually “Shylock”.

    1. Quite right: the issue is a “use-mention error”. The poster has read his Dennett. (Wikipedia has it as “Use-mention distinction”, which the poster links to.)

      But still I don’t emit the n-word / s-word / c-word etc. in speech or prose because I fear the cost of having to explain this for the rest of my life to the 90% of the population who probably haven’t heard of this concept … and quite reasonably are disinclined to learn about it, just as I’m disinclined to learn about driving stick.

  3. It is shocking—shocking!—that Bret Stephens used the word “intent” in his article. The word is clearly a dogwhistle for an entire catalogue
    of microaggressions, and should never be spelled out. We can be sure that he will be excommunicated from the NYT for this transgression.

  4. McNeil was, I guess, guilty of the ultimate sin of not using “air quotes” when using the word.

    “air quotes

    a pair of quotation marks gestured by a speaker’s fingers in the air, to indicate that what is being said is ironic or mocking, or is not a turn of phrase the speaker would typically employ.” [Definitions from Oxford Languages]

    How ridiculous. I think that a large majority of liberals would look down on the NYT for what is basically an exercise of rank intellectual immaturity.

    1. “I think that a large majority of liberals would look down on the NYT for what is basically an exercise of rank intellectual immaturity.”

      I would argue that by definition those who are liberal all pretty much look down on such bad behavior.

      Like many here I gave up my subscription to the Times a long time ago and have never looked back.

  5. The readership of the NYT cannot all be Woke. I would bet that most of them are not. So as the tally of these “dark defiles” continue to mount (there have already been several, right?), more and more of the non-Woke should become aware of the problem at that place. They will not learn of these events thru the NYT, of course, but from more moderate and reasoned sources. And so more and more readers will ask themselves: “Is this the final straw for continuing my subscription?”

    1. Crosswords and archives can’t be substituted elsewhere; without them I would have canceled long before now.

      From the reader comments, my impression is that the readership on the whole is not woke. But there seem to be fewer and fewer articles accepting comments, which in itself pushes me towards cancelling.

      1. My impression is like yours. Last week I tried to comment on the NYT article by Rachel Poser about Dan-el Padilla Peralta: I asked why it was ok for Poser to spell out the n-word in that story in the NYT Magazine, but not ok for McNeil to use the n-word didactically in a conversation (not in the NYT) in which he expressed anti-racist sentiment, with a student who was not a NYT employee. My comment died in moderation, I guess because some questions must not be asked.

        But I do still keep my subscription; positives still outweigh the negatives.

      1. I would suggest folks who feel this way get in touch with columnists and journalists who dare to report on the decline of the Times (and other venues) into Wokeism, to thank them for their service and encourage them on with their difficult task. Erik Wemple of the WaPost comes to mind. Without doubt they are already taking heat for their efforts (often in the form of back stabs, innuendo, threatened firings and doxxing- rarely in open confrontation) and will appreciate knowing that their readership is looking on in approbation.

        One sure thing is that once the descent into ideological purity begins, it can rarely correct itself without outside help.

  6. “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.” Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in The Common Law (1881).

  7. I am sure there will be pressure to can him, because even though the article was ultimately published without his participation (apparently), he had the temerity to think those things and write them. The NYT doesn’t seem to have much of a backbone these days.

    1. The Times leadership are hopefully considering what the future will look like when all their actual journalists have left and only their junior Woke staff remain. Those who have produced good work in the past, and who are sufficiently courageous now to sound the alarm, can find work nearly anywhere. The parasitic Wokeists and their spineless editors will find themselves in the company of Trump’s unaccomplished staff- hard to employ.

  8. Ok, serious questions here: let’s say I’m talking to the neighbor kid, and he asks me about what he heard the other day–namely, that one of his little friends mentioned the “n-word;” he doesn’t know what the phrase means. Would I be completely nuts to tell him? Even if I’m pretty good friends with his parents?

    1. ‘Ask your parents, kid.’

      For my own kid, I tell him the word. I tell him it’s highly insulting. I tell him he should basically treat it like profanity and just not say it (at least until he’s grown up).

  9. The readership of the NYT cannot all be Woke.

    True, but like a politician, the NYT pays it’s attention to those who will leave them over an issue, not those who won’t.

  10. The NYT is really remarkable: no matter how obtuse and craven their behavior, you can bet the farm that they haven’t come anywhere close to rock bottom yet. Brett Stephens is really their last claim to any kind of critical detachment and analytic clarity in their opinion sector (which has now, it appears, almost completely annexed the news coverage offices). If they lose him—and I think he is really way, way too good for the newspaper of broken record at this point—they’ll have roughly the credibility of those pathetic Trotskyite and Progressive Labor rags that proliferated back in the 60s.

    Apparently, transforming the NYT into something along those lines is the ultimate intent of the hysterical zealots now running the show there, and a fine job they’re doing of it, too…

    1. The NYT might ultimately end up like the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Daily Beast, or even CounterPunch—a small niche publication that caters to the fringe left, but has no relevance in mainstream America. (Hopefully!)

    1. No. Don writes in complete sentences and is very smart – way beyond the “moves lips when reading” NYPost readers. it is just terrible – held in lower regard here than pizza rats or LaGuardia Airport. 🙂

  11. Your list of derogatory terms for Jews reminds me of that delightful story by J. D. Salinger wherein a little Jewish girl is all upset. Her mother finally discovers it is because the girl heard another man refer to her father as a “kite”.

        1. It wasn’t censored because of derogatory terms for Jews. It was censored for profanity and scenes and references to premarital sex.

    1. A less highbrow reference to someone misunderstanding the slur was in “Porky’s” (1981) where the high school bigot bully tried making a joke about “flying a kite” in the high school locker room and his Jewish victim (soon to become his friend, or at least comrade in arms setting things right in the next county) impatiently corrected him with the correct term,

      Not a chance in hell that movie could be made today.

  12. Can Kathleen Kingsbury really be as clueless as she seems? Once the column went around the NYT newsroom, it was blindingly obvious that the column would be leaked by someone.

    Was she too stupid to realize this or did she think the NYT would look better by spiking the article only for it to appear elsewhere?

  13. Shylock the character from MoV presents (and has perpetuated) particular anti-Semitic tropes, but (unlike the other terms cited) I’ve never heard it used as a general anti-Semitic slur, only as a generic term for loan sharks of any ethnicity.

  14. “I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague.”

    And yet the New York Times has an especially low bar for running material that reflects badly on itself.

    1. … Although that piece (by Miranda Byrant) shows that she also does not graps the use/mention distinction that Aneris writes about above. From what she writes, you would think McNeil had used the word as an insult.

  15. I’ve been really tempted to cancel my New York Times subscription over this absurd trashing of a gifted and accomplished reporter’s career over absolute nonsense. But it’s one of the few decent papers left (no pun intended) and I can’t quite bear to part with it.

    This is how reactionaries are made. I’m a liberal, except for liking my guns and having some considerable skepticism about Islam and sexual identity fads. But this kind of thing makes me wonder if the conservatives not of the insurrectionist fascist-apologist variety might have a point now and then.

  16. If intent doesn’t matter, then there is *no such thing as a “hate crime”* — because the action (picking someone’s pocket or cracking his skull) is all that counts, not the criminal’s motivation. Have the Wokey-Dokes thought of that?

  17. If this is Kathleen Kingsbury’s first “hard call” decision, I am concerned the NYT is doubling down on groupthink orthodoxy. Disappointing.

  18. HA! I saw this earlier today and immediately thought of PCC (E), I nearly sent it along. Bret had better watch his hide up there in Midtown or he’ll be history. Which would be a great shame as he’s a sane view on the right unlike the odious, “not even wrong” Catholic Ayatollah Ross Dotard or even often tiresome David Brooks.


Leave a Reply